13 Star Trek Feature Films, Ranked in Order of Awesomeness
Yes, others may foolishly promise to deliver the definitive ranking of all Star Trek films. But only I have the indisputable and completely accurate ranking of all Trek films, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Star Trek Beyond. And now, because I’m a caring kind of guy, I’ll share that ranking with you right now.
No, I’m no hero. I just deserve to be paid like one.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
There’s nothing to discuss. There’s only one answer to the question of which Trek movie is the best: “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAN!” And if you ever meet someone who tells you this isn’t the best of the Trek films, then you are legally permitted to beat them with a sock filled with doorknobs. Or a stick, should doorknobs prove hard to find. It has everything: comedy, drama, suspense, icky scenes with ear-bugs, a gripping space battle, compelling character arcs, impeccable pacing, a strong emotional core, the return of the best Trek villain ever conceived, and one of the most tear-tugging death scenes of all time. “I have been… and always shall be… your friend.” Sniff.
2. Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Is it risky placing the latest Star Trek film, only out a few months, in the No. 2 spot on this list? Perhaps. But I think it deserves it. How? By finally being done with the here’s-how-the-gang-met and this-is-what-we-call-fan-service stuff in the first and second reboot films and focusing on telling an actual story. If you haven’t seen it: the Enterprise is on a rescue mission when it’s attacked by a massive swarm of small ships. Marooned on a distant planet, the crew searches for each other while trying to evade capture and unravel the mystery behind the latest threat to the Federation. Everyone in the crew gets a chance to shine (the scenes with Spock and McCoy are near perfection), Chris Pine’s Kirk finally acts like he deserves to sit in that chair, and special guest villain Idris Elba — as always — brings the class. What more can you ask?
3. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
“Admiral, there be whales here!” After the relative somberness of Treks II and III, the franchise decided to go in a different direction and have some fun with The Voyage Home. And what could be more fun than watching our favorite starship crew try to make sense of the weirdness of 20th-century Earthlings, what with our swearing and our boom boxes and our nuclear wessels? No surprise, it’s another rescue mission that only our heroes (in a stolen Klingon warbird) can pull off, this time going back in time to find two humpback whales before a space probe can… you know what? It really doesn’t matter. Just sit back and have a blast, because you can tell the actors sure as hell did. (Sorry, that swearing is just my primitive culture shining through. Double dumbass!)
4. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
If I had any quibble about the first fully TNG film in the franchise, it’s the addition of the Borg Queen to the list of Trek villains. The whole point of the Borg is that they have no hierarchy or central locus; you can’t just defeat the head villain and watch the rest of them fall down because they’re not designed to work that way. Ah well. Commander Riker himself (Jonathan Frakes) makes a hell of a directorial debut here, sending the crew back in time to prevent the Borg from altering Earth’s history and preventing the Federation from ever existing. It’s a clever idea for a script and comes with some great action sequences (plus some truly terrifying moments, a rarity in Trek), but the star of the show has to be Patrick Stewart, whose Picard is still dealing with the deep scars left by his own assimilation into the Borg years before. “Assimilate this!”
5. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
As Spock would put it, “There is an old Vulcan proverb: ‘Only Nixon could go to China.'” And so Jim Kirk — a man who has more reason than anyone to hate the Klingons — is dispatched to help bring peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The script’s parallels with then-current relations between the United States and the USSR (which dissolved shortly after this film came out) could not have been more obvious, but commentary on current events is not what makes this one of the better entries in the Trek film franchise. The Undiscovered Country — aside from hosting a great space battle and top-notch chemistry between actors who had been at this for a long time — functions almost flawlessly as a final bow for the original crew, and I dare any Trek fan to watch the cast’s signatures scrawl across the screen at the end and not feel a little lump in their throat.
6. Star Trek (2009)
It had been seven years since Star Trek: Nemesis did its best to destroy the Trek film franchise, and a lot of people were expecting big things from director J.J. Abrams’ reboot-slash-origin story. “Big things” is what they got. Yes, the main villain is forgettable and his revenge plan is needlessly complicated (which seems par for the course these days with movie villains) — and don’t get me started on the casual erasure of [SPOILER] from the Trek canon. But let’s give credit where it’s due: the casting is impeccable, the sets are amazing, the movie has an undeniable energy, and the decision to create an alternate timeline — allowing the previous 43 years of canon to remain intact while giving future films a clean slate — was a brilliant one, not least because it allowed space for a certain actor whose cameo provides a poignant bridge between the old and the new.
7. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Search for Spock suffers for following on the heels of Wrath of Khan, which is too bad; Leonard Nimoy’s directorial debut is a competent piece of filmmaking in its own right. But film does have its problems, starting with the fact Nimoy himself is absent for most of the running time. And while the rest of the cast does a fine enough job (including Shatner, who’s in fine form portraying some of Kirk’s most devastating moments), there’s still a sense of something missing that makes much of this film feel like a tacked-on sequel. Christopher Lloyd is fine as the main baddie but is nowhere near the level of Khan, and the film’s climactic battle scene is… a fistfight on an exploding planet. Still, watching the Enterprise’s destruction is a pretty powerful moment. “My God, Bones… what have I done?” “What you had to do, what you always do. Turn death into a fighting chance to live.” Goddamn right.
8. Star Trek: Generations (1994)
Let’s be clear: the intention behind Generations — to give audiences a rip-roaring adventure that would serve as a symbolic passing of the torch between Classic Trek and Next Generation Trek — was a good one. The problem was in the execution. With most of the original crew not returning (and Scotty and Chekov only getting bit roles), it was up to Shatner to hoist the Original Series banner — and even then, he only gets limited screen time with Stewart before his big death scene. And spoilers be damned, let’s revisit that scene: he fell off a bridge? Really? To be fair, there are a few good reasons to see this film: the TNG cast do fine in their first film outing, Stewart and Shatner make the best of the script they’re given to work with, and the Enterprise’s crash landing is pretty cool to watch. But balanced against that are emotion chips, Guinan being infuriatingly vague, pointless cameos by a Klingon duo no one was clamoring for, exploding stars and too many questions about “the Nexus” and what the hell it’s supposed to be. And seriously: who thought putting Cameron Frye in the captain’s seat was a good idea?
9. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Legend has it the success of Star Wars gave Paramount the incentive to fast-track Star Trek as a film franchise. If that’s true, then let’s hope the executives weren’t expecting the same kind of movie, because boy howdy this movie was nothing like the first Star Wars. I think the Rebel Alliance blew up the Death Star twice in the length of time it took for the camera in this film to pan… over… every… single… inch… of… the Enterprise. And can we talk about what a giant asshat Admiral Kirk is to his people in this film? He shoves a competent captain aside just so he can be in charge of the Enterprise again — and nearly kills everyone because he forgets it’s not the same as his old ship. Leadership, people. There’s a bit of a “new generation” vibe with the introduction of Will Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (Persis Khambatta) to the crew, but the plot about yet another mysterious outer space something-or-other never really gels, the special effects are less than special even for 1979, and the pacing… is… so… glacial… you… can… watch… the… continents… drift… apart… waiting… for… something… to… happen. On the upside? McCoy in a crazy-man beard. Can never get enough of that.
10. Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
After the wild space battles and time-spanning adventures of First Contact, Insurrection was a huge step back. In look and tone, it presents itself as an average episode of the TV show that just happened to run longer than an hour (103 minutes, to be precise). In a nutshell: Picard is ordered to forcibly remove 600 residents of a planet with incredible fountain-of-youth powers, and he and his crew defy those orders by taking a stand with the residents. There’s lot of silliness in this film with Worf getting a zit, Riker and Troi acting like horny teenagers and Data’s “I have been designed to act as a flotation device” — none of which does anything to distract from the problems in the script, the big one being the bad guys kind of have a point. This planet and its unique properties could help save the lives of billions of people, and we’re worried about the objections of 600 people who aren’t even indigenous to the planet? And why do they have to be moved at all? They live in one village; there’s a whole world’s worth of real estate to set up health spas. Hell, events aboard the Enterprise show you don’t even have to be on the ground to feel the effects of the planet’s magic radiation, so why not set up orbiting stations for everyone else to visit? The stakes seem so small and the issues so easily resolved that it feels less like an “insurrection” and more like “cause for a sternly written communique to Starfleet Command.” Uch.
11. Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Oh, man. This bloody thing. I had a few things to say about this film back when I first saw it, so feel free to go and read that. Here, all I’ll say is this: as pretty as the film looks, it is a damned frustrating movie to sit through. As if bringing in Benedict Cumberbatch (a decent chap in a thankless role) to play a half-assed version of Khan wasn’t bad enough, the film tries to steal some of the fans’ love for Wrath of Khan in the third act by outright copying so many of the beats in that classic film. And then it introduces the concept of “magic blood” that literally conquers death — but no time to reflect on the massive ramifications of that discovery, because boy have we got a rollicking Khan-Spock fistfight to show you! Into Darkness at least came with the right title — it’s the rare movie that’s downright embarrassing in its worst pandering to nostalgia while also destroying the underpinnings of the thing it’s being nostalgic about. (“Hi, we’ve just introduced technology that makes travel by starship obsolete. You’re welcome!”) It’s just beyond dumb, and only saved by the marked absence of anyone enjoying “marsh melons” around a fire.
12. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Speaking of which. This film ought to be a nostalgic favorite of mine, since it’s the first Trek movie I saw in a movie theatre as a young Star Trek fan. But good lord, there’s so much suck here. The jokes aren’t funny. The camping scenes are interminable. Everyone who isn’t Kirk is made to look like an idiot for a cheap laugh. The set-up to get the plot moving isn’t remotely plausible. There’s absolutely no reason for Sybok to be revealed as Spock’s no-good half-brother, or why he turned away from his culture’s love of logic. There’s no explanation offered for why “the great barrier” at the centre of the galaxy has never been breached — even though two ships are able to traverse it with nothing more than the power of belief or whatever. We don’t even find out what or who “God” is supposed to be, how it ended up on that planet, or why it needs a starship to escape. Hell, even the editing is half-assed — check the deck numbering in the turbo shaft scene and watch some of the numbers whiz by twice. This is Shatner’s sole directorial effort in the Trek franchise, and it’s easy to see why he didn’t return for a second shot.
13. Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Much as I’m tempted to put Final Frontier at the bottom of the list, this film deserves it more. Why? Because it was given so much to work with (seasoned cast, deep Trek mythology, decent effects) and completely wastes everything on watered-down ideas recycled from elsewhere in the franchise. Discovery of Data’s android “brother”? Been there. Sight of the Enterprise incurring massive damage? Done that. Valiant self-sacrifice by crew member that we know isn’t really a sacrifice because he’s going to come right back? Bought the “Cool, Starfleet just sent me a red shirt” T-shirt. Then there’s the villain, a new Romulan leader who’s actually a clone of Picard (because reasons) and he plans to destroy the Earth as part of a plan to free his oppressed people… it’s just stupid. This is the franchise killer that kept Trek out of theatres until the 2009 reboot, and it’s easy to see why. Nemesis was so bad it made film critic Roger Ebert give up on Star Trek: “It’s over for me. I’ve been looking at these stories for half a lifetime, and, let’s face it, they’re out of gas.” Preach, Roger.